Foreign Policy: Lessons from Latin America
of the Central American truth commissions are not just about events
that took place against the backdrop of the cold war. They are about
the United States today, and the role we intend to play in the world.
March, President Bill Clinton visited Central America to call attention
to the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. In Guatemala City, the focus
of the presidential visit shifted suddenly away from the random violence
of nature to the purposeful violence of men. On the eve of Clintons
visit, the United Nations-sponsored Guatemalan truth commission, known
as the Commission for Historical Clarification, went public with its
report which lays bare the savagery of the Guatemalan military.
Clinton deserves high marks for his comments on the report of the truth
commission. He did not vacillate, he did not equivocate; he stated that
the United States had been wrong to support Guatemalan "military
forces and intelligence units engaged in widespread repression,"
and he added, "We are determined to remember our past but never
repeat it." Had Clinton ignored our governments heavy responsibility
for the Guatemalan tragedy he would have strengthened the hand of the
still-powerful militarists and undercut struggling democratic forces
not only in Guatemala but in all of Central America.
If we had
to choose one place and time where U.S. policy towards Latin America
went wrong, the date would be 1954 and the place Guatemala. Confronted
with the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, one that was less than
subservient to U.S. pressures, the Eisenhower administration gave the
green light to the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the constitutional
order and install a military government, thereby igniting widespread
rebellion. Over the next thirty-five years, the CIA bankrolled a war
in which torture, murder and the firebombing of rural villages resulted
in the deaths of 200,000 people, most of them defenseless Mayan Indians.
CIA station chiefs, from their secret apartments inside the U.S. embassy,
subsidized a war that consisted largely of a mindless series of military
massacres. When U.S. policymakers at last lost enthusiasm for this pointless
reign of terror, these station chiefs undercut and lied to U.S. ambassadors
charged with helping to move the country towards peace.
New York Times reported (June 30, 1995), "American and Guatemalan
officials, who long denied these links, now acknowledge that the CIA
gave the Guatemalan military millions of dollars in the 1980s and 1990s,
used some of the money as bribes to buy information from high-ranking
military intelligence officers, and provided intelligence to the army
for its long war against guerrillas, farmers, peasants and other opponents."
In an unusually candid admission, the former inspector-general of the
CIA, Fred Hitz, told Clifford Krauss of the New York Times (March 6,
1999), "Its one of the saddest chapters of American relations
with Latin America. The United States felt responsible for what it started
by removing Arbenz and essentially we were trapped. We started something
and didnt know how to get off the train."
this "noche más larga" for Latin democracy, the militaries
of Central America arrogated to themselves the right to decide with
deadly force who could and who could not participate in the political
life of the country. In the name of anticommunism, U.S.-supported armies
suppressed democracy, free speech, and human rights in El Salvador,Honduras,
Nicaragua and Panama. Torture and assassination of democratic leaders
-including presidential candidates, journalists, priests and union officials
truth commissions have now issued reports on three Central American
countries: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The commissions were
unanimous in finding the militaries of these countries guilty of a pattern
of human-rights abuses in which unarmed civilians died at the hands
of those sworn to protect them. Thousands of the finest leaders of Central
America suffered torture and death for daring to take a stand against
military terror. Nor did high office, whether secular or sacred, offer
protection. Last year Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala was bludgeoned
to death two days after releasing a report documenting military massacres
of Mayan Indians.
therefore an act of high courage and patriotism for the Guatemalan members
of the Commission on Historical Clarification to write a report that
not only finds the Guatemalan military responsible for mass murder and
genocide but does not shrink from pointing out that the "government
of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided
direct and indirect support for some state operations." At the
presentation of the report, the commissions German coordinator
and former UN official, Christian Tomuschat, said their investigations
revealed that "until the mid-1980s there were strong pressures
from the United States to keep in place the archaic and unjust socioeconomic
structures of the country," adding that the United States and the
CIA supported some "illegal state operations."
titled "Guatemala: Memory of Silence" makes grim reading.
(To view the report on-line, see HTTP://HRDATA.AAAS.ORG/CEH/REPORT/ENGLISH.)
It shows that the United States was not backing one side in a civil
war but rather a campaign of official terror. Of the more than 200,000
victims, the commission found that the army and other state agents killed
93 percent. With direct orders from the governments highest echelons
and the military high command, soldiers carried out a scorched-earth
policy burning Mayan villages and throwing the still-living victims
into common burial pits. Declassified documents reveal that Washington
knew of these acts of genocide yet our government continued its assistance
to the Guatemalan military.
the Department of State and the Defense Intelligence Agency must accept
their share of responsibility for the Central American tragedy, the
Guatemalan truth commission was right to single out the CIA for special
mention. Between 1965 and 1981, I served in our embassies in Honduras,
Nicaragua, and El Salvador. I watched as the CIA recruited dozens of
paid informants from the right-wing fringes of Central American society.
These ideologues regarded labor union leaders threatening a strike or
student activists protesting the closing of a newspaper as agents of
subversion. I watched as CIA reports to Washington characterized as
Communist or Communist sympathizers, brave men and women whose only
crime was to work for the restoration of democratic government and against
the U.S.-supported military dictator. Worst of all, I watched as the
CIA shared its "intelligence" with the leaders of these military
regimes. Not unnaturally these authorities regarded any person fingered
in an official CIA report as a legitimate target for persecution, even
service officers did their best to bring some sense of proportion and
balance to the U.S. presence in Central America. We sent analytical
reports pointing out that the people who stood for change in Central
America were not necessarily enemies of the United States. We noted
that most of their leaders took their inspiration from our democratic
institutions and from our elected leaders. Our reports recommended less
identification with the military and economic groups which were systematically
looting these countries, and more understanding and identification with
the forces of change. Of these diplomats, the first and most important
was Viron P. Vaky who, on returning to the State Department from a tour
of duty in Guatemala in 1968, wrote a memorandum that put the crucial
question, "Is it conceivable that we are so obsessed with insurgency
that we are prepared to rationalize murder as an acceptable counterinsurgency
was yes. Neither Vakys memorandum nor the efforts of many career
diplomats over the years had much of an impact. The Pentagon and the
CIA were invulnerable to normal policy constraints as they carried out
their crude strategy of counterinsurgency. As the Guatemalan truth commission
stated, "The National Security Doctrine formed part of the anti-Soviet
strategy of the United States in Latin America. In Guatemala, this doctrine
first found expression as antireformist, then as antidemocratic and
culminated in criminal counterinsurgency." The School of the Americas
and other like-minded institutions taught the militaries of Central
America to attack not only guerrillas but also citizens who insisted
on their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly.
the history of Latin America has a country or group of countries suffered
such concentrated death and destruction as the United States, through
its proxy armies in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, inflicted on
Central America during the 1980s. More than 150,000 civilians were killed
in these countries. Hundreds of millions of dollars of property and
productive capacity were destroyed. The environment devas tated. Two
million refugees, desperate to escape the violence, fled to our borders
and entered as illegal immigrants.
effects of our policies were felt not only in Central America but here
at home. With CIA director William Casey in the lead, the Reagan administration
brushed aside peace overtures from the Salvadoran revolutionaries and
the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The CIA created, trained and
paid a counterrevolutionary army composed largely of former members
of the hated Somoza National Guard and pressured the government of Honduras
to permit the contras the use of its territory. Over the next five years,
the Reagan administration did its best to conceal from the American
public its policies and actions designed to overthrow the Sandinista
government. When a frustrated Congress cut off all funding to the Nicaraguan
contras, President Reagan authorized the CIA to sell arms to Iran and
to use the profits to support the Nicaraguan contras. This presidential
action appeared to violate the exclusive right to control the purse
given to Congress by the Constitution. According to the independent
counsel on Iran-contra, Lawrence Walsh, this action brought President
Reagan "within range of impeachment." The death of CIA director
Casey removed the key witness to President Reagans direct involvement
and a constitutional crisis was thereby averted.
the number and rank of officials brought low by Iran-Contra was impressive:
Indictment of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, a guilty plea
and suspended sentence for national security adviser Robert MacFarlane,
conviction on multiple felony accounts of national security adviser
John Poindexter and his aide Oliver North, a plea bargain that reduced
felony charges to misdemeanors for Assistant Secretary of State Elliott
Abrams and CIA officer Alan Fiers, the felony conviction of CIA official
Clair George, and the indictment of CIA officer Dewey Clarridge. And
in what Walsh believed was "the last card in [the]coverup",
President George Bush issued what might be described as a clandestine
presidential pardon for the chief offenders, signed on New Years
eve, 1986, with no press or photographers allowed.
American involvement shook the faith of many citizens in their ability
to influence the course of events through then-elected representatives.
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan has written in his excellent book On the
Law of Nations, "Here we come upon an anomaly. As the United States
became more committed to the advancement of democratic values in the
world at large, it came more and more to do so by means of covert strategies,
concealed from the world and not least from the American public. This
is not difficult to explain; it is difficult to defend. It costs too
much, it achieves too little; and it gives power to presidents to do
things that come to seem merely extralegal, rather than illegal. Not
lawless, simply above the law. The intelligence community cannot help
but make presidents feel this is what they are there for."
the Cold War, with the division of the world into Communist and anti-Communist,
enemy and friend, the United States gradually abandoned the rules which
had traditionally governed relations between civilized states. U.S.
foreign policy left the path of judicious application of diplomatic
influence and respect for sovereignty, judicial equality, and territorial
integrity. In place of these time-tested principles of international
conduct, the United States directed the preponderance of its resources
toward strengthening foreign military establishments at the expenseof
civilian in- stitutions throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Overseas, the bulk of our energies were dedicated to the fighting of
an ill-defined communism, usually designated as subversion, through
huge CIA stations, military missions, and public safety programs. Of
necessity, secrecy and lies went hand-in-hand with these stealthy operations.
towards less accountability has gathered pace and scope since the collapse
of the Soviet Union a decade ago. State Department appropriations have
been slashed, consulates closed, political sections of embassies weakened
while the number of CIA personnel assigned to embassies under diplomatic
cover has doubled and tripled. In many embassies CIA operatives outnumber
the State Department budget was $5.4 billion. That same year Congress
voted a 10-percent increase to the intelligence budget, bringing it
up to approximately $30 billion. Then the Clinton administration, fearful
of a political battle on national security, proposed a $112-billion
increase for the Defense Department over five years. This increase comes
at a time when the United States is already allotting $280 billion annually
to defense spending, more than the next six heavy defense spenders combined.
threat of an expansionist Soviet Union behind us and with important
opportunities to work through the United Nations for collective action
against world disorder, our government instead seeks to discourage all
"potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional
or global role" to quote a Defense Department study of 1992. Under
this policy, the State Department suffers deep cutbacks and our dues
to the United Nations go unpaid while the Defense Department and CIA,
the least transparent and accountable units of our government carry
out a parallel foreign policy in much of the world undisciplined by
diplomacy or effective checks and balances.
tools at the Pentagons disposal include arms transfers, training
courses, exercises, short-term deployments, humanitarian activities,
and "military-to-military contact" programs. With often vague
objectives and only a tenuous connection to U.S. security interests,
these programs have grown enormously during the 1990s. Known variously
as "peacetime engagement," "foreign military interaction"
or even "defense diplomacy," they have involved the U.S. military
in many new non-combat roles, among them peacekeeping, drug interdiction,
law enforcement and policing, infrastructure building,disaster relief,
environmental protection, and rebuilding postconflict societies.
explosion of "peacetime engagement" programs has involved
a rapid growth in the use of Special Forces Operations ("unorthodox"
units such as Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs), which the secretary
of defenses Annual Report to Congress describes as "warrior
diplomats capable of influencing, advising, training, and conducting
operations with foreign forces, officials, and populations." Indeed,
as Wayne A. Downing, a former commander of the U.S. Special Operations
Command, told the Washington Post (July 13, 1998), Special Forces "are
a direct instrument of US foreign policy. They may be the most direct
and most involved, tangible, physical part of the U.S/ foreign policy
in certain countries."
the stated goals of extending and protecting democracy and human rights
around the world, the U.S. military frequently complies with "requests"
from brutal and corrupt dictatorships for training in "foreign
internal defense" and controlling civilian disturbances. U.S. military
teams are helping militaries "restructure"offering services
ranging from computer consulting to reforming command and control to
rewriting doctrine and military codes of justice. Former president of
Costa Rica and Nobel Prize winner Oscar Arias, speaking of the "reckless
proliferation of weapons around the world", said, "for decades
we have heard the leaders of developing nations speak eloquently of
economic opportunity and democracy as birthrights, and then casually
continue to abet the militarization that destroys them. Last year the
US transferred worldwide $21.3 billion worth of military hardware and
training. Some $15.6 billion of this total went to developing nations,
and a record $8.3 billion to non-democratic regimes."
by the Central American example, U.S. foreign policy has done grievous
harm to those building blocks of world order that were our great post-World
War II achievement. These building blocks include self-determination,
pluralism, human rights, collective security, interdependence, multilateralism,
international law, international and regional institutions, treaties,
and economic growth. Add to that list the new issues we must place on
our twenty-firstcentury foreign-policy agenda: common action to save
our global environment; an international commitment to curb exploding
population growth; multilateral agreement to control and to reduce to
a minimum nuclear arsenals; an end to the "silent genocide"
of third-world famine and plague; a ban on exporting arms to undemocratic
countries; and a commitment to promote economic opportunity in the poorer
nations by investing in education, health, and sustainable development.
place,Washington has substituted unilateralism, covert action, and the
"can do" military salute. The first
confronting a dangerous trend is to document it. Our role in Central
America provides the ideal example. The United States needs its own
version of a truth commission on Central America not only to bring home
to the American people the key role we played in the overthrow of the
elected government of Guatemala, the formation of the death-dealing
Battalion 316 in Honduras, the sponsorship of the decade-long butchery
in El Salvador, the destruction of Nicaragua through the manufacture
of a civil war and a long list of less spectacular disasters; but also
to provide compelling evidence that the aggressive cold war foreign
policy machinery of the United States needs a radical overhaul.
States needs a strong military to establish a cooperative framework
for global security. It does not need to proliferate arms around the
world. The United States needs to gather intelligencethat is,
informationthrough capable diplomats and through clandestine collection
such as spy satellites. It does not need to employ covert action except
when the national survival is at stake.
How a nation
is organized to conduct its foreign policy will determine to a great
extent the nature of that policy. If we understand that national security
in the post-cold war world is not to be found in unilateral build-up
and clandestine operations, then we should drastically cut back the
size and scope of foreign activities by the Pentagon and CIA and fix
responsibility for the management of a coherent and accountable foreign
policy with the secretary of state and the president.
is reprinted with permission from the June 4, 1999 issue of Commonweal
magazine. c 1999 Commonweal.
report of the Commission for Historical Clarification: http://hrdata.aaas.org/ceh/report/english
E. White, a former ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president
of the Center for International Policy.